What If Garrison Hearst Didn't Break His Ankle Against Atlanta in 1999?
The 1998 season and subsequent playoffs in January 1999 were a tumultuous time for Garrison Hearst and the San Francisco 49ers. Owner Eddie DeBartolo was being investigated in a gambling scandal and many experts felt the 49ers were an aging team on its last leg.
But the 1998 San Francisco 49ers would not be denied and compiled a 12-4 record, good enough for 2nd place in the NFC West and a Wildcard Playoff berth.
Following a career year by running back Garrison Hearst where he rushed for a then team record 1,570 yards averaging 5.1 yards per carry and a memorable 96-yard overtime touchdown run against the New York Jets on opening day, the 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers 30-27 in the 1999 Wildcard Playoffs on a last minute touchdown pass to Terrell Owens.
Hearst's numerous clutch runs gave San Francisco the field position necessary to win the game.
A week later on Jan. 9, 1999, the 49ers faced the NFC West champions—the surprising 14-2 Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
On the first play from scrimmage, Hearst suffered a gruesome ankle break when his foot got caught in turf and was twisted extensively as he tried to spin away from defensive end Chuck Smith. Many attribute this play as the end of the old San Francisco dynasty because of the change in ownership and lack of youth on the roster.
The San Francisco 49ers fell 20-18 to the Atlanta Falcons and doctors said Hearst might not ever play again. They were obviously wrong when Garrison Hearst was awarded with the Comeback Player of the Year award in 2001 but one can only ask what could have happened if Hearst didn't break his ankle that fateful day in Atlanta?
This is due to San Francisco's 13th ranked defense and the 3,733 yards given up through the air that year and the fact that Bronco running back Terrell Davis was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player as he rushed for 2,008 yards as San Francisco gave up 4.1 yards a run, not a very impressive statistic.
However, the 49er offense was still as explosive as ever, ranking 3rd overall (Denver was 2nd) and 1st in rushing yards while the Broncos' defense took 9th overall. If the 49ers and Broncos played at Super Bowl XXXIII, it probably would have been an offensive shootout but declaring the Broncos as winner of this fantasy match up is up for debate.
Denver's pass defense gave up 3,648 yards in 1998 but their run defense was stout, allowing 1,287 on 3.6 yards a carry.
There is the possibility that a healthy Hearst may have not played a factor against such a strong run defense, but the 49er passing attack was established with veterans Steve Young, Terrell Owens, J.J. Stokes, Jerry Rice, and Hearst as a good receiver out of the backfield in Steve Mariucci's West Coast Offense when they scored 479 points, good for third in the NFL behind the second place Broncos and the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings.
On the defensive side of the ball, veterans Roy Barker, Bryant Young and Chris Doleman averaged 12 sacks a piece while Zack Bronson, Tim McDonald, Darnell Walker, and Merton Hanks each had four interceptions.
The defense may have not ranked well at season's end, but they made key plays throughout the season that complemented the high octane 49er offense.
If the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos faced off in Super Bowl XXXIII, I believe Denver would have scored 34 points against the San Francisco defense, the same number of points they scored on the Atlanta Falcons.
Atlanta's Jamal Anderson did not play a factor in the game which leads me to believe that Garrison Hearst would have suffered a similar fate if he didn't break his ankle and if the 49ers punched a ticket to Miami that year.
But the 49er passing attack during that season had the ability to score points in bunches leading some to believe San Francisco may have been able to score more than 34 points.
As for a final score and winner of the game, I'll leave that up to you.
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